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And the winner of a license number is …

Buy a car, get the license number, now you’re ready to hit the road. At least that’s standard procedure in a large part of the world. But since the introduction of quotas for license numbers, things work a little differently in China’s metropolises. In Shenzhen, for example, the eighth and latest Chinese city to introduce a quota, license numbers are only available at a weekly Monday auction or via a lottery. It takes patience and a little luck before you can get behind the wheel.

It’s no secret that China’s megacities have mega problems with smog. Alone in Shenzhen, population around 11 million, at least 3 million cars fill the streets. Result: traffic jams and exhaust fumes galore. Now the city’s annual quota of 100,000 new licence numbers, including 20,000 electric vehicles, is supposed to help curb the problem.[1] One side effect is that many who would like to purchase a car can’t, at least not legally (more on that later). In Peking, where a similar quota is in place, 240,000 new license numbers are allowed per year. According to the newspaper China Daily the chances of getting on are fairly slim: 1 in 90 people who would like a license number actually get one.[2] Electric cars, however, get one automatically.

China’s close fight against air pollution

While it’s promising to see China addressing its alarming pollution issues, are such quotas viable solutions for China’s environmental problems? Critics agree it’s questionable if the quota will decrease the number of cars on megacities’ streets. If someone really wants a car, he or she will find a way – even if it requires illegal tactics. The black market for stolen or falsified license numbers is booming. Others simply register the car in a neighbouring county, though the Chinese government is trying to stop this. Rumours also run rampant among citizens about the lottery’s corruptness, despite government claims that it follows fair processes.

Already back in 2011, the Chinese government announced its plan to fight pollution. Tax breaks and bonuses were to encourage people to switch to electric mobility, with the target of putting 5 million electric cars on China’s streets by 2020. Based on the status quo, it looks like this goal will be hard to meet. Of the 20 million new cars sold in 2013, only 18,000 were electric or hybrid ones.[3]

Still a lot to catch up

Arguably, two of e-mobility’s biggest barriers in China are lack of both standards, like a universal plug, and the required infrastructure, especially charging stations. It’s mind boggling that when you’re in Shenzhen, you might not be able to charge the electric car you bought in Peking! Fires resulting from e-bikes charged with old technology have also made consumers sceptical and many prefer investing in a new diesel car over electromobility. Another huge concern for China’s electric vehicles: the energy source. China still largely relies on coal to generate electricity, so while the e-cars aren’t depleting reserves of fossil fuels, they use dirty energy.

On the one hand it’s exciting to see China address environmental issues but its approach needs a lot of attention. License number quotas alone won’t make the air clean – nor will they get the Chinese to switch to electric cars fuelled by green energy.

So what should China do? Why not start by gaining inspiration from holistic e-mobilty concepts proven to be eco-friendly? For instance Alphabet’s AlphaElectric vehicles and infrastructure that make corporate fleets more sustainable. Intrigued? Learn more here.